As Gerald opened the toilet door from his twenty-minute smoke he heard the distant sound of the TV room. Lots of shouting and laughing with canned applause. It was a quarter-to-five, nearly time for their tea. He started walking towards the direction of the noise.
To him as a care home worker, and probably to the many relations that had dumped their nearest and dearest at Gossmoor Park for the elderly, it had become a forgotten place. Where the hallways always smelt of piss and boiled cabbage. Where relatives could ease their conscious and say, “It’s for your own good,” when they finally and thankfully off loaded a problem that still walked, talked and farted.
Most of them here were alright, some perhaps dim-eyed and welded to their walking stick, maybe a little loose in the bladder, but otherwise ok. Then there were the others, who just sat in the TV room with their vacant gaze and slack jaw, dribbling from the chin, staring up at Jerry Springer with the audience screaming.
Heavy smoking and Scotch had made Gerald Smithers look older than his forty-seven years. His appearance was of an old-fashioned looking Jack-the-lad spiv type, especially when out of his care home whites and wearing his light tweed sports jacket with matching Burberry flat cap and cravat. Definitely, somebody you would not take a cheque from, only cash. And then, you’d hold the notes up to the light, look for the water mark. A bit like examining Gerald’s scruples, you could read a newspaper through them!
Sitting in his old MG sports with his thin-trained moustache, he cultivated a Leslie Phillips look. Gerald epitomised the dodgy second hand car dealer. In fact, he wouldn’t have looked out of place in Tooting - trying to sell a banger to some unsuspecting customer with his arm around their shoulders.
The dining room was on his way. He stopped and peaked in. There was some jam doughnuts set out. Gerald wrapped one up in a napkin and stuffed it in his pocket. Another one he started eating while staunching the flow of jam down the side of his chin with a finger.
Tabatha, the resident cat had seen him. She was underneath the table lying on a chair. Her favourite place as teatime was soon. Tabatha knew the varicose veined legs to brush up against for tasty hand-me-down tit-bits. But now, she knew by the smell of the tobacco who this was. She wanted to get out the room. Get away from him. She’d had run-ins with Gerald Smithers before.
Just as he pushed the last of the doughnut in his mouth Tabatha made a bolt for the door. Colliding with Gerald’s right shoe, she flipped and rolled over screeching a meow! Gerald jumped out his skin choking on half a swallowed doughnut. Then, with a sudden realisation, he lashed out kicking her like a football. ‘You fucking, cat!’ he kicked hard again. ‘Keep out my fuckin’ way!’ Tabatha screeched with pain and limped quickly out the room.
Gerald went to the door and put his ear to the crack. It was quiet. Kitchen smells of teatime and burnt toast hovered thick in the hallway. He composed himself, brushed the sugar off his face. Then, licking his finger’s he made his way down the corridor to the sounds of a game show.
At the TV room, Gerald stood by the half open door without being noticed. He watched them with contempt and wondered what it must be like to be old and useless. He despised the way they demanded attention, sometimes with no thanks. How they shuffled along the corridors, arched over, clutching their walking frames. Their limp white hair carefully combed over the bald patches by the resident care lady. Stained Cardigans replaced by clean ones for visitors. Bandaged legs with fur slippers, and always the smell of urine masked by cheap perfume.
He had watched them eating many times at lunch and supper. Food revolving around in their mouth’s like clothes in a washing machine. Afterwards, helping the more infirm - on and off their commodes. Heaving with the stench. Having to deal with wiping them. Then, smiling, when relations came to visit. Pretending he had a special bond with this one or that one. “My favourite,” he’d tell a son or a daughter, with everybody going “arrh! that’s nice. We’re very grateful.”
Bath nights were the worst, hearing their constant moaning while undressing. Wincing from the nauseating soiled underwear. Trying to coax them to sit down. Listening to them whimper. “It’s still too hot,” with frail emaciated faces and dull frightened eyes. Wishing they would fall. Break a hip.
The sport came next. Holding their head under for a while and watching thin frail arms flail around. Letting them up suddenly, heaving and coughing, gasping for air. Meeting their pleading eyes. Smiling at them as they blubbered away. “Please don’t hurt me. I’ll be good. I won’t be any trouble.” Slowly pushing them back under. Pausing, just before the water covered their nose. Giving them a little bit of hope. Laughing quietly at their one last coughing fit.
Then the hand on the head, forcing down. Desperate scrawny fingers reaching out from the water, clawing at the white sleeve of the care home uniform until the grip slowly released. The eyes wide open, staring up. Lips pulled back in a grinning rictus. Thin white hair floating and waving in slow motion. Watching the last tiny bubbles of life drift out of their mouths to the surface. It was so good to have that power…
Then, hitting the red emergency button. Running out into the corridor for help. Standing back looking worried while others fussed; worked the defibrillator, gave the kiss of life, pummelled the bony chest, thumbed the eyelids closed, dried the white useless flesh, folded the arms across with respect; and finally, pulled the green sheet over the face.
At the end of each daily shift, Gerald had to cleanse himself from handling all those old people. The thought of being in constant contact with them, while washing them, drying them, dressing them, feeding them, wiping them, lifting them – sometimes it would make him reach into the wash hand basin.
Gerald switched on the shower. While waiting for it to warm up he took some clean clothes from the wardrobe. When he slid the mirrored door shut, he paused at the reflection. He’d done this many times. The severe burn scars on his upper arms, chest and shoulders, stood out like a map of the London underground. After many skin grafts, he still couldn’t strip off on a beach. On the few occasions he had done so, people would shrink back, look away. Kids would whisper to their mums or point.
Unbeknown to her, his elderly grandmother had lost the tip of her cigarette when she had leant over his cot while babysitting for the parents. Then she fell asleep, downstairs. By the time the smoke and the crying had reached her, he had sixty-percent burns.
He often wished he could have confronted her about it, but she died when he was six years old. The thought of being alone with her with his own cigarette, had, over the years, created scenarios in his mind.
Gerald was brought up in Rainham by his father, Tom. Tom had always felt guilty about the accident. He shouldn’t have let his old mother baby sit while they’d gone to the cinema. This guilt was compounded when his wife left. She could never stand the sight of the burns; it was Tom who always had to bath and dress him. One day Tom came home from work and found the letter. She’d run off with his best friend, his best friend? So he thought.
Gerald and his dad did everything together. They were keen football fans. Tom used to take Gerald and his friend Rupert to all the Arsenal home games. He didn’t have to pay for Rupert, he was smuggled in under Gerald’s jumper.
Tom’s sister, Maureen, used to help out. She lived local so Gerald went there for tea after school. Tom would collect him later on his way home from the factory. For a while, things couldn’t be better for Gerald. Then, Tom met Doreen.
Doreen served in the shop floor canteen at Fords in Dagenham, while Tom worked the assembly line on the car upholstery. It was her discreet large portions for him at lunchtime, as he queued, and her big smile, that wet his juices.
Doreen was a widow with no children, apparently, she hadn’t wanted any. She was a bit over weight and wasn’t exactly a stunner. But, she was looking for security and secretly willing to put up with a kid in tow.
So, with Tom dead keen, and after a registry office wedding, with Gerald staying a few days at aunty Maureen’s, they had a weekend away at Canvey Island.
Doreen’s previous husband had been in middle management. They’d lived comfortable. Always seemed to be dining out. Lived for the day really - weren’t backward in treating themselves. But, when he died, things took a tumble for the worse. With no pension, only a small life insurance and a large mortgage, she had to sell up and rent a room.
Problem was, Doreen had tasted the sweets of middle management success. Even with this newfound security, she wasn’t keen just accepting her current station. She wanted Tom to get on. Move up the ladder. Go for some of the white collar jobs advertised at Dagenham. Perhaps do a bit of study, one or two evenings or weekends, instead of messing around with that fucking kid.
But, Tom loved his football. On the contrary, weekends would see him and Gerald kicking a ball about over the park. Even at eleven years old, Gerald had some skills. Doreen would stay home and house work. Doreen wasn’t into football, she was into housework. Very house proud our Doreen. On the rare occasions she did go with them, she’d sit on the uncomfortable wooden bench with a sour face, reading a Homes and Garden, her favourite magazine, or an upmarket holiday brochure, way above their income range.
With Doreen now the lady of the house, Maureen began to take a back seat. She understood of course. Tom and his sister kept in touch on the phone. He’d tell her how Gerald was doing. Tell her, ‘Gerald hasn’t warmed to Doreen yet, but he’ll come round. Mind you,’ he’d joke, ‘if her cooking is anything to go by, we’ll probably be eating Rupert soon?’ Tom would break off, stop himself laughing and listen out, just in case. But Doreen had heard it all, in the bedroom, on the extension, the one she’d persuaded Tom to get, that she’d promised to pay for; said it saved her coming down stairs to answer if she was house-working up stairs.
Even though she worked a canteen, Doreen was no Fanny Cradock. She hated cooking.Her culinary expertise stretched to mostly beans on toast or tinned Macaroni cheese. Tom started to have full blown three course meals at work, to make up for it. He didn’t mind, nor did Doreen; it was subsidised. And, he got to choose out of four main courses. Gerald was just grateful for his school dinners.
Sometimes Doreen would see their glum faces at teatime. She’d tell them she was saving on housekeeping; putting money away for new carpets and a three piece suit for the front room. Tom never argued. Everything went over his head. He just handed over his wage packet. She ran the house.
It was the summer of 1961 when Tom started getting the stomach pains. They gradually got worse. After visiting his Doctor on and off for two months he was referred to a hospital consultant. After tests and treatment, they eventually diagnosed large bowel cancer. It was terminal. When nothing more could be done, he was sent home.
For the next four months, Gerald watched his father melt away. He’d forego school dinners and come home to sit with him. He’d watch the day time nurse with her needle. The morphine brightening his dad’s face. Dulling the pain. She’d change him, mornings and lunchtimes. Near the end, it was easy, like she was changing a baby. She’d roll him over, pick him up. He only weighed six stone. But still, the National Health could only do so much. By evening, the toilet smell in the back bedroom was unbearable. Doreen never went in, she’d lost interest. She was just counting the days.
It was on one of these lunch times his father pointed a trembling finger to the wardrobe door. ‘Gerald, in my blue suit top pocket. There’s something for you.’
He went over as his dad instructed and reached for the fine linked chain. It was a beautiful engraved silver Fob watch.
‘I want you to have it, son. It was given to me by my parents on my 21st birthday.’
Gerald was speechless; he looked at the watch and then his dad. ‘But - but, I can’t take...?’
‘It’s yours, son; something to remember me by.’
It was the first time Gerald had really accepted his father’s situation. He broke down sitting on the edge of the bed and wept. His father with great effort put a very thin arm around his shoulder.
Gerald kept the watch in his school blazer top pocket. Just like his dad did. That was until Doreen clocked it, as a manner of speaking.
Gerald was getting thinner, not eating properly, worried about his dad. Tom’s sister Maureen had visited. She’d remarked to Doreen about Gerald’s welfare. That’s when they fell out. She exploded telling Maureen basically, to mind her own business.
Doreen wasn’t stupid. She’d got it all worked out. Tom had never thought of making a will. Truth is, until Tom had been terminally diagnosed, nor had she. On Morphine and painkillers she wasted no time in getting him where to sign.
At the funeral, Doreen and Maureen ignored each other. They sat well apart. This also sat okay with Doreen and her plans. Gerald went over to speak to Maureen. She made a fuss of him while they chatted, but when she saw Doreen looking daggers, she excused herself.
The next few months were hard. Tom’s pension on death didn’t transfer to a wife, and his small life insurance just covered the funeral costs. Doreen still worked at her canteen job and drew a small widow’s benefit. But, it wasn’t near enough; there was still a mortgage to pay.
Then one Monday morning, Gerald’s world shattered. He came running in just before leaving for school. ‘Have you seen dad’s fob watch?’ He was panicking, breathing fast while searching his pockets.
Doreen looked at him a little annoyed. She said with no emotion, ‘I’m sorry, Gerald, I had to pawn it. Your father was sick. He didn’t know its true value.’
‘But – but, it was my dad’s. He gave it to me?’ Gerald’s face had gone white with shock.
‘He just lent it to you, Gerald. It was far too expensive for a young boy like you to have.’ She turned away and dismissed his pleading stare. ‘Those sort of things are for you when you’re grown up. Now get to school.’
‘But it was mine, you shouldn’t have - ?’
‘Shouldn’t have?’ Doreen turned on him. ‘Shouldn’t have? Just remember who puts food on the table, Gerald? It’s better off in hock than in your blazer pocket. At least it’s paying its way, which is a lot more than can be said for you?’
The arm of his blazer stemmed the tears. With a pang of remorse she added, ‘Don’t worry, you’ll have it back by the end of the week. I’ve just loaned it to get some money.’
At the end of the first few weeks, he did ask. But there was always an excuse. She told him to stop nagging. He never did see his dad’s watch again.
Not long after, without telling Gerald, Doreen put the house in the hands of three estate agents looking for a quick sale. Trouble was, it was winter and greed had its clammy arm around Doreen’s shoulder, and she wasn’t dropping in price. So, to make ends meet she took a charring job.
She’d answered a card placed in a local post office window: Cleaner required for general housework. Twice a week i.e. polishing, dusting, vacuum cleaning. It didn’t quote hours or wages. She went for the interview. For Doreen it was just a short walk through the park and then into a manicured residential area.
An elderly lady, leaning on a brass handled walking stick, asked her to wipe her feet before she was let into a house that was big and old with lots of expensive knick-knacks. With their comfortable trust funds and pensions, Doreen thought, this was the only neighbourhood around Rainham that could employ regular cleaning staff.
Mrs Crackston was roughly in her late seventies and, apart from Winnie, her yappy cocker spaniel, lived alone. Her expensive inlaid French polished sideboard was festooned with silver framed photos of a late husband and their children and grandchildren.
Doreen had checked out cleaning rates and, before Mrs Crackston could utter a word, made it clear what she wanted; sixpence an hour over the standard rate. Mrs Crackston’s lips pursed and seemed to cave in on her toothless gums. Even Winnie the dog yapped, then hid at the back of her rolled down stockings. She finally nodded in agreement, but made it clear she expected a first class job.
Walking home it occurred to her, if she had some extra help she could be done in twice the time. So on her first evening Doreen waited till Gerald arrived home from school, then, ignoring his protests about homework, marched him off with her.
Doreen kept him busy. He was assigned general dusting and helping with the washing up; while she covered the wiping down, polishing and vacuum cleaning. Gerald never got any pocket money for helping - just the occasional slap if the old lady whined out a complaint. And she was pretty fond of that.
Mrs Crackston and her yappy cocker spaniel took an instant dislike to Gerald. She would shuffle behind him as he dusted. Muttering, picking holes. Frequently she’d call Doreen away from her duties, wiping her finger along an edge to show where Gerald had missed. Another slap by Doreen, while Winnie yapped at him then bolted behind the old ladies blue veined legs. On one occasion without the old bag being present, he’d taken Rupert out and waved it at the mutt. Winnie bared her teeth then shot out the room in a yapping frenzy.
It was during the summer, wearing his short-sleeved school shirt, she noticed the scars. Mrs Crackston didn’t want him in her kitchen. She told Doreen. The old lady assumed he had some contagious infection. Doreen didn’t argue, she needed the money and she still hadn’t sold the house. But of course, without Gerald helping with the dishes, washing up took twice as long. As usual, in a mood, she slapped the back of his head and told him to clear off and make himself busy with some other chores.
One of his jobs was dusting a beautiful highly polished yew corner table. In the middle of it sat an engraved silver trinket box. Gerald did peak once and jumped as the ballet dancer sprang into action to the chimes of the Sugar Plum Fairy. Before he closed the lid, he did notice a gold fob watch, dull with age, sitting in the deep blue satin amongst some tie pins and cufflinks.
It was about a week later on their way to cleaning, they slowed at the approaching site of a police car in Mrs Crackston’s drive. Using the spare key, Doreen let herself in as usual with Gerald. All of a sudden, a hand came from behind the door and grabbed her wrist.
‘I’ll take that, Mrs Smithers.’ The key was snatched from Doreen’s fingers and returned to Mrs Crackston; she was leaning on her stick with the arm of a sympathetic police woman supporting her.
‘Thank you, constable,’ the old lady said, smiling briefly at the uniformed young man.
Doreen looked at them mystified. ‘What’s all this about?’
‘You know what it’s about?’ Mrs Crackston hissed. ‘Your son’s a thief.’
‘What do mean he’s a thief?’ Doreen whirled on Gerald, then looked at the three of them. ‘What’s he supposed to have stolen?’
The old lady, ignoring the constables, let me handle this gesture, continued. ‘He stole my husband’s fob watch.’
‘Now let’s calm down shall we?’ The constable turned to Mrs Crackston with another cast off wave to her remark, while Winnie yapped out her little protest at the policeman’s feet. ‘We can’t just start accusing people, madam, until we have evidence.’ The constable turned back to Doreen and Gerald. He spoke to them quietly. ‘Look, just to clear this up, eliminate yourselves.’ He glanced cautiously at the old lady, then back again. ‘Could you both empty the contents of your pockets and your handbag, Mrs Smithers, on the table?’
Without hesitation, they did as they were told. Rupert stayed well hidden. No one noticed the bulge.
‘Just because it’s not on him, doesn’t mean he hasn’t hid it somewhere? I bet she’s in with him, probably sold it herself?’ She waved her stick at them, followed in succession by three yaps from Winnie.
The constable raised both hands to quieten her. ‘We can’t go accusing, Mrs Crackston, unless we have evidence, I’ve told you.’ The police woman patted the old ladies shoulder to pacify her.
Doreen answered back in a mocking smirk, ‘She’s probably mislaid it herself, the old fool.’
With that, Mrs Crackston raised her stick again. ‘I want you out of my house, now. You can collect your stuff and go.’ She looked at the constable. ‘I want you to wait here till there gone.’
The constable raised the palm of his hands to quieten her again, then offered a nervous smile to Doreen and Gerald. ‘I’m sorry, but you’ll have to do as she says.’
‘Okay, that suits me,’ Doreen said abruptly. ‘Gerald, get our things from the broom cupboard and we’ll be off. I don’t like being accused a thief.’
The constable nodded, as young Gerald flashed him a glance for permission to go to the broom cupboard and collect Doreen’s mop, galvanised bucket and dusters. Fortunately, no one followed him including her yappy cocker spaniel.
Gerald moved swiftly up the stairs, two at a time. At the top, he pulled out Rupert from his grey school cardigan. He kissed him affectionately on the head and whispered, ‘Listen, I want you to scare the shit out the old bag, do it for Gerald, there’s a good chap. Goodbye, old friend.’ Then he threaded Rupert through the balustrades.
A minute later, with a clatter, Gerald emerged with a broom, bucket and mop. Dusters stuffed in his pocket.
Mrs Crackston started up, ‘And make sure non of that’s mine? I know exactly what’s in that broom cupboard?’
Doreen matched her with, ‘I can’t say it’s been a pleasure, you old cow. But I hope you and your husband’s fob watch rot in hell.’ With that retort Doreen slammed the door behind them.
Outside, Gerald got two hard slaps on the back of his head. ‘You stole it, didn’t you?’
‘No I didn’t - honestly!’
‘Yes you did, you little brat, just to get back at me for your dads watch?’
Gerald shouted at her, ‘No I didn’t!’ He rubbed the back of his head, the tears welling up.
‘Well, whatever? All you had to do was keep yer nose clean. You know the old bag didn’t like you. Now I’m out of a job. And you - you.’ She faced him with an intense look of dislike, ‘You can go to bed without tea tonight.’ With that she turned and walked off in a huff.
Poor Gerald, out of favour with Doreen once again, glumly followed her all the way home.
Later, Mrs Crackston watched some television. Then, with great effort, got out of her chair, wincing as she steadied herself leaning on her stick. She moved slowly into the kitchen to make some Horlicks. The cocker spaniel padded behind her. She poured some water for the dog. Winnie, all excited wagged her tail and slurped in her bowl, while Mrs Crackston dipped her gingernuts, sucking on them with her toothless gums as a small piece dropped into her hot drink.
After they finished she switched off the kitchen light and made her way to the stair lift. She carefully manoeuvred herself into the mobile chair. Mrs Crackston patted her lap for Winnie to hop on. She pushed the control for ascend and they slowly began to move up the stairs. Winnie had done this many times. She sat still licking the old ladie’s hand.
As they turned the right-angled bend it was Winnie who became restless. A low apprehensive whine at first, then a yap.
‘What’s up, Winnie?’
‘Calm down. What’s the matter with you?’ She patted the dog’s head but Winnie was up on all fours standing on her lap. ‘Come on now, sit down.’
Her dog was looking up the stairs and began to growl. ‘Stop it, Winnie.’ She got a soft slap on her rear. ‘Behave yourself.’ The cocker spaniel meant business. It began to bear its teeth in a viscous growling snarl at something Mrs Crackston couldn’t see.
As the stair lift slowly climbed she stiffly turned her head upwards. Winnie had started barking aggressively, jumping in her lap with the full force of each bark. She had never seen the dog in such a mood. ‘Shut up, Winnie!’ She slapped the dog hard this time but Winnie had her lips pulled back into a nasty curdling sneer. Then, yelping at another slap she jumped off the old ladies’ lap and rolled down two stairs, then steadied herself. She looked up and started barking in a frenzied state.
‘Winnie, you naughty dog, I’m going to give you such a…’ Rupert had slid down the balustrades and was peering over the top of the landing. Mrs Crackston let out a scream when she saw the Black Mamba. She cowered, half out her seat. ‘Keep it away - Oh God! Help me, Winnie - Kill it…’
The dog quickly moved up the remaining stairs snapping and barking. Mrs Crackston was standing on the moving chair, leaning away from it, screaming, as the long olive grey body and the black gaping mouth came nearer.
‘Kill it, Winnie - kill it for mummy - ARGHH!’
Mrs Crackston lost her balance; she lunged at the thick newel post to save herself but missed her grip. She rolled over and over screaming down the stairs. Her face smashed into the wall at the turn, leaving a bloody smear, then she somersaulted down the remaining flight. The brittle snap of her neck as she hit the bottom echoed through the quiet hall. Her walking stick followed, clunking and bonking down the treads until it came to rest across one arm.
Winnie had grabbed Rupert. She had the snake in her mouth as she ran back down the stairs and dropped it by Mrs Crackston’s body, yapping at her face. Then, Winnie quietened. She began to whine, wagging her tale. Not understanding the staring eyes, the twisted head at right angles. She licked the blood from the ear and nose, affectionately, hoping to waken her owner.
Winnie snarled and grabbed Rupert; the rubber snake bouncing up and down in her mouth as she took it to her basket. She nuzzled the old blanket and left it under there with her favourite ball and chewed slipper.
Two months later Maureen heard a knock on her door. It was Gerald with his little suitcase. Doreen had quietly sold the house and done a runner, to Canada. She had lied to Gerald. Told him he was going to live for a short while with his aunt Maureen and then she would send for him, of course, she wasn’t. Told him it had all been arranged, of course, it hadn’t. Told him she was going to buy a smaller place for them both, of course, she didn’t. Gerald saw her look of astonishment as she let him in. He spluttered to say something, then burst into tears.
His happy relationship with aunty Maureen was short lived. Seven months later she was killed in a road accident, on a pedestrian crossing. The car didn’t stop but the driver was found and prosecuted. Maureen had never married, so her stepsister and family cleaned up, what with the sale of her flat and a nice car insurance pay-out.
Gerald got shoved into care. Then came a spell with the wrong crowd and some frequent stealing. Inevitably, he eventually found himself at a Borstal for juvenile offenders. After that, bad luck seemed to follow Gerald around - as far as he was concerned, even good luck was just bad luck with its hair combed.
His thoughts returned to his shower. He fumbled inside a drawer for a fresh towel. The fingers probed some handkerchiefs, then, they felt the cold smooth roundness. He pulled it out.
Gerald looked at the inscription; he had done so many times. E. F. Cole &Sons (Accountants) Presented to George Crackston on his retirement. He rolled the gold fob watch in his hand, the chain swung beneath it - then rubbed it against his cheek. The touch - the sensation. It made him close his eyes in brief ecstasy.
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